Obituary: Joseph Vincent Paterno / For Penn State's 'JoePa,' a storied but scarred legacy

Dec. 21, 1926 - Jan. 22, 2012

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- Had Joe Paterno's life remained unclouded for a just a few more months, the remembrances today would speak solely of his legacy as the winningest coach in college football history, of his role as a revered leader and molder of men and of his generosity to the university he loved.

Mr. Paterno's death Sunday morning at the age of 85 prompted an outpouring of praise for just those qualities from men who had played football for him, from coaches with whom he had worked, and from young students whom he had never met.


But behind the praise and the tributes was the knowledge that he had been fired on Nov. 9, after 46 years as head coach of Penn State University's football team, amid criticism that he didn't do enough in 2002 when he was told that one his former assistant coaches had sexually abused a boy in the team's showers.

Mr. Paterno was pronounced dead at 9:25 a.m. Sunday at Mount Nittany Medical Center of complications from lung cancer. He was surrounded by family members.

"He died as he lived," said a statement released by the Paterno family. "He fought hard until the end, stayed positive, thought only of others and constantly reminded everyone of how blessed his life had been.

"His ambitions were far reaching, but he never believed he had to leave this Happy Valley to achieve them. He was a man devoted to his family, his university, his players and his community."

The last months

On Nov. 5, a Dauphin County grand jury issued a shocking report that changed the coach and the school forever.

The grand jury charged Mr. Paterno's former assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky, with 40 counts involving the sexual abuse of young boys. Additional charges brought the total to 52. The report also accused athletic director Tim Curley and Gary Schultz, the senior vice president for finance of business, of perjury and failure to report the alleged rape of one boy in a football locker room shower. All three of them deny the charges.

Mr. Paterno and university president Graham Spanier were fired Nov. 9 in a unanimous vote by the school's board of trustees, in part because they said Mr. Paterno failed a moral responsibility to report the locker room incident to authorities outside the university. Mr. Curley, who also has lung cancer, is on administrative leave while Mr. Schultz retired.

"I didn't know which way to go ... and rather than get in there and make a mistake," Mr. Paterno said in his last interview, which was published in The Washington Post Jan. 14.

"So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it."

Trustees have faced mounting criticism over the handling of Mr. Paterno's firing. Some trustees have said they regret that Mr. Paterno was notified by phone rather than in person.

Alumni have vehemently voiced their support of Mr. Paterno and their discontent with the trustees, calling on them to step down. Hundreds of alumni have attended town hall-style meetings with new Penn State president Rodney Erickson throughout the Northeast, including in Pittsburgh.

On Nov. 18, days after he was fired, Mr. Paterno was diagnosed with lung cancer. Then he refractured his pelvis Dec. 11 following a fall at his home. He initially suffered the injury in August after being accidentally hit in practice by wide receiver Devon Smith. His health quickly deteriorated.

"I can't help but think he died of a broken heart," said ESPN analyst Matt Millen, a former Penn State All-American.

Hours before he was fired, Mr. Paterno called the scandal "one of the great sorrows of my life. With the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had done more."

The tributes

Mr. Erickson and the board of trustees thanked Mr. Paterno Sunday for helping make the university a better place.

"We grieve for the loss of Joe Paterno, a great man who made us a greater university," the statement said. "His dedication to ensuring his players were successful both on the field and in life is legendary and his commitment to education is unmatched in college football. His life, work and generosity will be remembered always."

New England Patriots offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien, hired Jan. 7 as Paterno's replacement, offered his condolences.

"The Penn State football program is one of college football's iconic programs because it was led by an icon in the coaching profession in Joe Paterno," Mr. O'Brien said in a statement. "There are no words to express my respect for him as a man and as a coach.

"To be following in his footsteps at Penn State is an honor. Our families, our football program, our university and all of college football have suffered a great loss, and we will be eternally grateful for coach Paterno's immeasurable contributions."

And Tom Bradley, who was former Penn State football player, longtime assistant coach and interim head coach after Mr. Paterno was fired, said Mr. Paterno was more than an icon and a legend.

"He was a tremendous teacher not because he knew all of the answers but because he challenged us to find the answers for ourselves," Mr. Bradley said. "He made us better men than we believed we could be -- both on and off the field. And when we lost our way or became unsure of ourselves, it was Coach Paterno who was there to encourage us, guide us and remind us that we must always strive to succeed with honor."

His legacy

Mr. Paterno, born Dec. 21, 1926, in Brooklyn, succeeded his mentor, Rip Engle, as Penn State coach in 1966. Affectionately known as JoePa, he went on to become one of the most successful coaches in college football history.

A Brown University graduate who had planned to attend law school at Boston University, Mr. Paterno compiled a 409-136-3 record as head coach. He coached 23 top-10 teams, five unbeaten teams, was named national coach of the year five times and captured two national championships, in 1982 and 1986.

Mr. Paterno coached more than 350 players who signed National Football League contracts, including 33 first-round draft picks. He also coached 79 first-team All-Americans and 49 Academic All-Americans.

"Coach Paterno should be remembered and revered," said Paul Posluszny, a Hopewell High School graduate and former Penn State All-American linebacker who plays for the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Mr. Paterno was inducted into the College Football Hall of Fame in 2007.

"You look at his record and history, and then you look at all the pro athletes, All-Americans, doctors, lawyers and great people he's produced, and it's unreal, said Steelers great Franco Harris, a running back who played for Mr. Paterno in 1969-71. "He built himself quite a legacy."

Before Penn State went from major independent to joining the well-established Big Ten Conference in 1993, Mr. Paterno's admirers and detractors often referred to him as St. Joe.

"There were times when I wanted to scream at him," former tight end Mike McCloskey once said. "There were times when I wanted to punch him out. He kept after me, challenging me. It took me the better part of two years to finally realize there was nothing personal in it. He wasn't picking on me. He was trying to make me better."

Mr. Paterno's teams often reflected his conservative values -- featuring no-nonsense offenses and nationally ranked defenses. Under Mr. Paterno, the school picked up the nickname Linebacker U. He captured coach of the year honors five times.

"The guy coached a few thousand players, and whether you were a starter or a nobody, he remembered your name," said former Penn State wide receiver Gregg Garrity, a North Allegheny High School graduate who also played for the Steelers. "That's impressive."

Mr. Paterno grew up in the Flatbush section of New York City during the Great Depression and was an avid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers baseball team. He nearly left high school because the tuition of $20 a month was too much of a burden for his family.

As a senior at Brooklyn Prep in 1944, he played on the best Catholic football team in the city. Its only loss was to a New Jersey team coached by Vince Lombardi.

Under Engle at Brown, Mr. Paterno played quarterback -- he was 15-3 as the starter -- and defensive back and majored in English literature. He also played two seasons of basketball, and his freshman coach was late Pro Football Hall of Famer Weeb Ewbank. Sportswriter Stanley Woodward once described Mr. Paterno as a quarterback who "can't run, can't pass -- just thinks and wins."

When Engle left Brown to take the Penn State job in 1950, his backfield coach, Bill Doolittle, decided not to join him, so Mr. Engle offered Mr. Paterno the position. Mr. Paterno, who had planned to complete his degree and attend Boston University law school, reluctantly accepted.

In Engle's first game as head coach and Mr. Paterno's first as an assistant, the Nittany Lions beat Georgetown, 34-14.

"I made a lot of mistakes that day, but we ended up winning the game," Mr. Paterno said. "And I think I went in after the game and I said to Rip, `I apologize. I'm just a kid out of college.' And I said, 'I blew a couple things, coach.' And he said, 'Ah, you did all right.' "

Three years later, Mr. Paterno called his parents and told them he was going to stick with coaching.

"They were disappointed," Paterno said. "And that was tough for me. But I just had a feeling I could do some things here with Rip. ... I just felt this might just be something I could grab hold of and run with."

Mr. Paterno's father was upset. "I always thought you'd be president of the United States," Angelo told his son.

During his tenure as an assistant, Mr. Paterno started dating the former Suzanne Pohland of Latrobe. He married her in 1962, the same year she graduated from Penn State.

"I've been very, very fortunate, God almighty," Mr. Paterno said. "If I hadn't stayed here, I wouldn't have met Sue. Nobody in the world has a better wife than I do."

When Engle decided to retire after the 1965 season, he tapped Mr. Paterno to take over for him.

Mr. Paterno became Penn State's 14th head coach Feb. 19, 1966, and won his debut seven months later, a 15-7 victory over Maryland.

"We went out there with about 12,000 people, and I was as nervous as could be," Mr. Paterno said. "My coaching experience was a lot different than a lot of people, and I never, ever was with the football team. I always was upstairs, and I was all by myself."

Mr. Paterno leaned heavily on Jim O'Hora, the defensive coordinator, for advice in his early years. "Jim O'Hora had more influence on me than anybody," Mr. Paterno said. "I had all the answers. Jim sat me down and said, 'Hey Joe, you're driving the staff nuts. Let up.' And I think that probably helped me as much as anything."

Five of Mr. Paterno's teams finished with unbeaten records -- the 1968 and 1989 teams were 11-0 and the 1973, 1986 and 1994 squads were 12-0. His 1978 and 1985 teams were undefeated in the regular season, but lost bowl games that decided the national title.

In 1969, Mr. Paterno was offered the chance to coach the Steelers. He rejected the offer, he said, because he wanted financial security for his family. The Steelers hired Chuck Noll.

Mr. Paterno also turned down the Green Bay Packers in 1970 and a five-year, $1.3 million offer from the New England Patriots in 1972. At that time, his annual salary was $32,000.

"No one deserves a million dollars just to coach a football team," Mr. Paterno said. "A lot of young coaches make the mistake of jumping from place to place. They never leave much of themselves anywhere.

"I never wanted to do that. I didn't want to be just another coach. All I wanted to do was have an impact on Penn State."

He did just that.

Mr. Paterno served as athletic director in 1979-82. He helped organize fundraising campaigns, including the one that resulted in a new convocation center and basketball arena on campus in the early 1990s.

Mr. Paterno was instrumental in getting Penn State -- an independent for 106 years -- into the Big Ten. He also was the driving force behind the cancellation of the football series with rival Pitt, which will resume again in 2016 and 2017.

He developed strong friendships with some of his colleagues, such as former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden and former Pitt coach Johnny Majors.

Mr. Paterno often spoke of tradition -- the Penn State tradition. And along the way, he became forever entwined in it.

He was proud of his reputation as a hard-liner on academics and team policies.

"A kind, gentle man," former tailback Leroy Thompson, who was drafted by the Steelers, said in 1991. "That's off the field. On the field, a total maniac."

Mr. Paterno was a folk hero for most of his time at Penn State, where the Creamery, the famed ice cream shop, introduced a popular flavor, Peachy Paterno. Stores also sold a life-size cardboard cutout of his likeness.

When the students staged a Paterno look-alike contest, he said: "I don't know why anyone would want to win it."

Mr. Paterno developed an even stronger national presence when he began doing advertising -- including television spots for the Yellow Pages -- and spoke on George H.W. Bush's behalf at the 1988 Republican National Convention.

Sports Illustrated named him Sportsman of the Year before his team won its second national title in 1986.

When legendary Alabama coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant, died in 1983, 28 days after coaching his last game, it had a profound affect on Mr. Paterno.

He passed Mr. Bryant -- who owned a 4-0 record against him -- on the all-time victory list for major college coaches Oct. 27, 2001. Mr. Paterno secured his record-breaking 324th victory when Penn State rallied from an 18-point deficit to defeat Ohio State, 29-27.

"When you [reporters] talk about retirement, I often thought about when [Bryant] left, and he didn't have anything else to do," said Mr. Paterno, who died 75 days after he was fired. "He wouldn't golf or anything. I don't either. What am I going to do if I retire?"

When Mr. Paterno's program lost 16 of 23 games in 2003-04, Penn State fans, and a few administrators, wondered aloud if it wasn't time for him to step down.

Mr. Paterno's doorbell rang Nov. 21, 2004. Four high-ranking Penn State officials, including Mr. Spanier and Mr. Curley, walked into the coach's home and told him, for the second time in less than two weeks, that they wished him to stop coaching.

Mr. Paterno won that power struggle. He believed if he could keep his coaching staff intact, the program would be fine. He delivered on that promise in 2005, finishing 11-1, third in the national polls. He believed his players were bigger than the game.

"I think if it's just a question of winning and losing, football is a silly game," Mr. Paterno said. "I really believe there is something more to a college football experience, and I think our players have enjoyed that approach and they have gotten a great sense of their capabilities now and what they can do in later life. It's the confidence they have gained in meeting that kind of challenge."

Mr. Paterno is survived by his wife, five children and 17 grandchildren. His children, all Penn State graduates, include daughters Diana Giegerich and Mary Kathryn Hort and sons David, Jay (Joseph Jr.) and George Scott.

In lieu of flowers or gifts, the family requests that donations be made to the Special Olympics of Pennsylvania or the Penn State-THON, the Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon.

Funeral arrangements are expected to be announced today.

Ron Musselman: and Twitter @rmusselmanppg. First Published January 23, 2012 5:00 AM


Create a free PG account.
Already have an account?